When I decided to join the philosophy program at the University of Turin, after high school in Geneva, I went to see a respected professor of philosophy in Rome who had also studied in the city where Nietzsche went mad. Since he was a longtime friend of my parents, I was confident he would give me some good advice on courses, teachers, and readings. His advice, instead, was very different from what I expected: “Don’t end up in a philosophical cage.” I wasn’t certain what he meant, but it struck me as something that had to do with Plato’s allegory of the cave or philosophical schools and traditions. However, a year later I told this story to another professor, and my perspective changed. “Before worrying about remaining in a cage,” he said, “you must create one” — in other words, you need to develop a theoretical framework “to think.”
What I liked so much about these suggestions was the subtle call to think without fear and without expectations. The cages will always be there, but I came to understand how important it is to create a philosophical cage that allows you to leave it. When would leaving become necessary? When the thought within and outside the cage becomes too clear, too certain, and too oppressive.
But these sorts of cages are what the world demands from philosophy, models of thought that allow philosophers to become academic experts, intellectually superior and detached from others. Isn’t the vaunted solemnity of philosophers within academia a consequence of this demand, this approach to thinking?
Philosophers have always taken themselves too seriously. We write long books and complicated essays that are primarily meant to demonstrate how much we know or how profound we’ve become. We are often arrogant and envious of one another. Every philosopher believes he has said the last word. But there are exceptions, such when philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto stressed the “value of letting go”: the “important thing is to be able to start over again someplace else.” And Gianni Vattimo once defended a colleague accused of plagiarism by saying “I [would] understand if we were scientists dealing with patents worth millions and competing for the Nobel Prize, but ours are simple thoughts. No big deal, really.”
The problem with this attitude is that one runs the risk of being professionally marginalized and mocked as philosophically weak, and incapable of defending a position. This is especially true today, when philosophy feels the need to keep up with other academic disciplines (the hard sciences in particular), and to compete with them for funds. There is also a global rappel à l’ordre — a call to order — manifest in the return of populist politicians and religious fundamentalism, which is trying to discredit the humanities for its generalizations, abstractions, and lack of clarity. But “if you don’t allow people to be unclear,” as Richard Rorty once said, “intellectual progress grinds to a halt. It’s the vague people who are the pioneers.” The vagueness the American pragmatist was referring to does not consist of abstract or unclear statements, as so many continental philosophers are accused of making, but rather in the need to embrace thought’s inevitable conditions, limits, and weaknesses.
This does not imply we must always embrace limitations when we attempt to solve philosophical problems, but rather continue to think despite them. After all, these limitations provide frameworks, which, as Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions suggests, sooner or later are always replaced by others. This inevitable replacement should not be interpreted as a setback, but rather as part of thought’s progress. Knowing that our frames or “cages” will change should inspire us to be more playful, and less self-serious, philosophically.
The creation of philosophical cages, which differs from artistic creation because it has intellectual requirements, lets philosophy open new realms of research, or fuse together different traditions and thinkers that once seemed incompatible. This, after all, is how we found “gender performativity” (when Judith Butler fused together ordinary-language philosophy and French feminism), animal studies (through the intuitions of Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, and Giorgio Agamben), and a Lacanian reading of Hegel (as Slavoj Žižek practices).
Changing our attitude and thought in this manner keeps us from thinking we can say the last word, lessens the temptation to be arrogant, and, most of all, restrains the impulse to impose our answers upon others. It also allows us to resist the academic, political, and cultural forces that prevent philosophical creation. This is why I always tell my students to leave open the doors of their philosophical cages, because they will soon need to leave them for new ones.